A prominent model of how the brain regulates attention proposes that the anterior cingulate cortex monitors the occurrence of conflict between incompatible response tendencies and signals this information to a cognitive control system in dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Cognitive control is thought to resolve conflict through the attentional biasing of perceptual processing, emphasizing task-relevant stimulus information. It is not known, however, whether conflict resolution is mediated by amplifying neural representations of task-relevant information, inhibiting representations of task-irrelevant information, or both. Here we manipulated trial-by-trial levels of conflict and control during a Stroop task using face stimuli, while recording hemodynamic responses from human visual cortex specialized for face processing. We show that, in response to high conflict, cognitive control mechanisms enhance performance by transiently amplifying cortical responses to task-relevant information rather than by inhibiting responses to task-irrelevant information. These results implicate attentional target-feature amplification as the primary mechanism for conflict resolution through cognitive control.
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